Tord Gustavsen Trio.
Recorded December 2006 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
On this third outing for ECM, pianist/composer Tord Gustavsen comes full circle on Being There. When he signed to the label in 2003, issuing his debut, Changing Places, he and his collaborators - bassist Harald Johnsen and drummer Jarle Vespestad - dug deeply into close-knit quarters, creating a detailed yet expressionistic examination of the more melancholy human emotions. Being There completes a trilogy of elegantly layered, spacious jazz from the most introspective elements. As a pianist and composer, Gustavsen employs only the barest essentials. There is no fiery technique, no gimmickry that will heighten or dampen the mood, no harmonic drift. This music flows from a source, albeit quietly and enigmatically, looking into territory explored on this side of the Atlantic on earlier albums by Brad Mehldau, albeit with a distinctly Northern European voice. Perfect for ECM, the music is cool, almost uncomfortably so, such that when its lyricism is fully given voice it often takes the listener by surprise, instilling a kind of silence that breeds wonder rather than detachment. Manfred Eicher's signature production allows Gustavsen's piano the sheer deliberation and consideration he requires to put his gorgeous melodies into the air. This rhythm section doesn't follow his lead so much as flow into it, playing as a single voice, allowing these songs form and function. Gustavsen's imagery is skeletal, yet he shines light into the darkened corners of those less than celebratory moodscapes, bringing an intricate balance to both lyric and emotion.
Check the rhythmic interplay on "Blessed Feet," where his chord voicings play the blues contrapuntally against Vespestad's snare. These are blues that sing and swing. Elsewhere, the mood is less transparent on the surface, such as in the whispering "Karmosin," written by Johnsen; it begins as an exercise in percussion, then rhythm, and finally lyricism. Johnsen's bass is a presence that anchors this lithe, shimmering melody and puts the weight of shade against the pianist's fragile light, and the articulation of the percussive voice melds both into a whole. The trio's artfulness is given full expression in the ballad "Around You," where the minor-key scalar head wraps itself around middle-register counterpoint and slides along the snare and cymbal skitter that is poignantly accented by Johnsen. The larger chords weave classical and jazz motions around the rhythm section, dynamically shifting from one bar to the next without ever losing sight of "song." At its heart, Being There is an album of very carefully constructed songs, where improvisation is part of a context - its part in the entirety of the shape, texture, and dimension is argued delicately yet authoritatively, where close listening is of the essence by each player. The longest of these 13 pieces is only a shade over six minutes, and most fall between four and five minutes. For a recording that unveils itself so gracefully, there is true heft in its presentation. As hinted at on Tord Gustavsen's earlier ECM dates, Being There is the fruit of labor meticulously crafted and dutifully harvested. It is an album of secrets echoed, and questions that are fathomlessly deep; it invites the listener in cleanly, without seduction, and argues for full participation in its revelations.
All Music Guide
Norwegian pianist Tord Gustavsen views "Being There" as the third instalment of a trilogy that began with "Changing Places" (recorded 2001 and 2002) and continued with "The Ground" (recorded 2004). On "Being There" the music's priorities are maintained. The album's title is borrowed from a tune on "The Ground", intentionally stressing the continuity of the music, and also underlining its working concept, characterized by Gustavsen as "being acutely present, aware and focused in the fullness of the moment. The group has a definite direction or sound, but there are still many nuances to explore."
Gustavsen's clearly-delineated melodies define a large part of the group's sonic identity, but so does the manner in which the trio approaches them. Technical flamboyance has almost no role to play in Gustavsen's sound-world: restraint is one of the music's hallmarks.
"On the one hand", he notes, "this is a matter of discipline, but it's a discipline inspired by a love of spaces, not by some anorectic minimalist ideology. It's about 'loving every note' - to phrase it as a slogan - or about trying to play what you'd actually like to hear rather than what you think you ought to play." This 'holding back' allows room for other musical developments to flower naturally, one of which has been the drifting of Jarle Vespestad's drums towards the centre of the sound: the drums are, as Gustavsen says, a crucial component of the music. If this has been a tendency of performances in the live setting almost from the beginning, it is especially evident on "Being There".
Track by track:
"At Home" was written shortly after the release of "The Ground" and has been a staple of the group's performances for almost three years. Lyrical, "almost romantic", yet "still offering intriguing spaces of rhythmic and tonal possibility" it opens the landscape of the album, a function it has often performed in concert.
"Vicar Street" is named for an address and a venue in Dublin where the piece was first performed. The piece found a new direction in the studio (Oslo's Rainbow, with Manfred Eicher producing). "It begins more abstractly and the melody comes in toward the end. It's a simple melody, and the fact that it has some kind of pastoral implication is not without significance."
"Draw Near" is the first of several wordless hymns on the disc. "A cluster-like chord at the start gives a sense of tonal ambiguity but it ends in a very down-home gospel major feel. To play it is to strike a balance between openness and fundamental rootedness. That's true of a number of pieces on this disc."
Gustavsen describes "Blessed Feet" as a "soft-spoken but dancing piece". Inspired by and dedicated to Gustavsen's young nephew ("the folk-like, playful melody is based on the syllables of something he said one day"), the piece also acknowledges a debt to Keith Jarrett and the "Belonging" quartet and to Jon Christensen's wry drum patterns. It is a piece that seems predestined for much radio play.
"Sani", like "Vicar Street" is also named for the place where it was premiered. "The Sani Festival is held by the sea outside Thessaloniki. We were there last summer, playing up on a majestic cliff looking down at steep hills plunging right into the sea." The piece is done as duo with piano and drums, "performed very rubato, and quite freely improvised", but interjecting fragments of the melody into the improvised flow.
The "Interlude", with Gustavsen alone, follows directly, "in the same spirit as 'Sani', but without any clear melody from pre-composed material. But it's a rigorously composed-in-the-moment tune, I would say. I perform pieces like this often in concert - to make transitions between the tunes."
"Karmosin" written by bassist Harald Johnsen is the only non-Gustavsen tune in the album's programme, "a beautiful, almost tango-like piece that is crying out for a film director to adopt it as a theme tune. In this version we have rearranged it. Starting with the drum solo, and with the bass phrasing differently, the piece takes itself in other directions".
"Still There" is a slow gospel tune in 6/8 with Gustavsen's characteristic blend of "radical simplicity and tonal ambiguity" rendering a key-change midway almost imperceptible. It is one of several pieces of hymnic character on the disc. "Having the hymns spread out has the function of binding the album together formally."
"Where We Went", with its Phrygian mode and 'Spanish' feel seems like a departure for the group. "It is in the way it builds", Gustavsen agrees, "but not so much in its essence. It starts out with a definite uptempo feel, where the trio more often starts out slowly to have all rhythmic options open gradually, but also here there is a lot of space in our way of approaching it. It combines inspiration from East Coast cool jazz - of which Lennie Tristano would be a prime example - with a more down-home and space-oriented whole. I don't know quite where the Spanish influence comes from. We've never set out to play either Spanish or Caribbean-influenced music...."
As its title implies, "Cocoon" is about change and transformation. "This a piece that plays with form, making small twists in familiar forms. 'Cocoon' has, in itself, a more suite like form than some of our pieces - a rubato part, a section with a slow gospel feel that progresses toward a bass solo - a different way of controlling the materials."
"Around You" is a romantic ballad which recalls the piece "Your Eyes" on the trio's ECM debut "Changing Places" in its chordal construction, with A and B sections in different keys, and the modulation "like something happening in the undercurrent of the melodic development."
"Vesper" is a piece that has already been used as prelude at evensong services at a church in Norway. A literal hymn, supremely calm, a bold statement in its simplicity. "Our music draws just as much from hymns and gospels as it does from contemporary jazz or contemporary classical music."
The connection to "wordless hymns and open-minded spirituality" is important for Gustavsen who grew up playing in churches and today attends "a very liberal branch of the church in Norway. This bears a lot of significance for me in my life but the music is in no way intended to convey a 'message' in that sense." The music is strictly nondenominational, but the trio is encouraged by the response of listeners around the world who claim to have found solace in it. "It's fulfilling, and humbling, to realize that the music can actually mean something to people in their lives. And this is a lot more important to me, actually, than trying to demonstrate how much technique you have, or how fashionable you can be, or how accurately you can match the tastes of influential critics."
The album closes with "Wide Open", a last hymn - in this programme - "connecting groundedness and openness. A good tune, I think, with a strong and simple melody that I can really come home to."